Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"War now not only occurs more rarely . . . [but is] an occasional excess, from which recovery is easy."

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)
Naval Historian
Columbia College 1854-18567

By arguing that sea power—the strength of a nation’s navy—was the key to strong foreign policy, Alfred Thayer Mahan shaped American military planning and helped prompt a worldwide naval race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mahan studied at Columbia for two years beginning in 1854—he was a member of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary club established in 1802—before decamping for Annapolis, from which he graduated in 1859. A longtime naval officer who cut his teeth on the Union side in the Civil War, Mahan eventually lectured on history and strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. It was there, inspired in part by a history of Rome, that he began developing his theories; in 1890 he turned his lecture notes into The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783.

Appearing at a time when Japan and the nations of Europe were engaged in a fiercely competitive arms race, Mahan’s work had a singularly profound influence on politics worldwide. In the United States, Mahan’s theories found a particularly receptive audience in Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt: His work bolstered the case for rapid expansion and reconfiguration of the U.S. Navy, which replaced small cruisers with massive battleships and underwent a concomitant change in tactics; continued expansion overseas (to the Philippines, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, and the Caribbean), which allowed the creation bases at which U.S. ships could refuel and protect commerce; and even the construction of the Panama Canal, which facilitated the movement of fleets and freight. Mahan’s work influenced strategists in other countries as well, leading to naval buildups in England, Germany, and Japan in particular. Although Mahan saw military might as a means for avoiding war, the global growth inspired by his theories very clearly set the stage for World War I.

Read more about Alfred Thayer Mahan in the Columbia Encyclopedia

Theodore Roosevelt befriended Mahan and subscribed to his theories.

Prominent alums of "Philo" include Hamilton Fish, Joyce Kilmer, and Thomas Merton.

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Columbians Ahead of Their Time

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